Let the Real Battle Begin

Obama Has Huge Cash Edge, but It Hasn't Helped Much So Far

By Published on .

Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
The conventions are over, balloons have dropped, columns were removed and contrasts drawn. It's time to get down to the business of electing the next president of the United States. With the campaigns now in the home stretch, media markets become the chessboard, with ad buys as the game pieces.

So far in the general election, Sen. Barack Obama has outspent Sen. John McCain by close to $10 million. The candidates poured money into 11 of the same states; Obama spent unopposed in seven others.

Based on my read of the current public polls and media buys, there are currently only seven true battleground states: Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and North Dakota. Obama has a lead in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa. McCain has an advantage in Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina. A few other states -- Montana, Minnesota and maybe Oregon -- could slip onto the board, but at this point, I predict the board gets smaller and not wider over the next few weeks. This race will likely hinge on success in the Great Lakes region and the Mountain West.

The campaigns will have some hard calls to make when they deploy their media dollars. Right now, both the Obama and McCain campaigns are spending upward of $1.4 million per day in battleground states. McCain, who is accepting federal funds, must be budget-conscious with his $84 million -- and he must depend on party money and hopes that a few 527s throw their hats in the ring for him.

Obama, on the other hand, will likely try and block McCain's message, and possibly the sun, with his massive war chest. The challenge here is hitting the correct notes with his message and not giving voters "Obama fatigue." But trust me, McCain would like to have the same problem.

McCain's money will likely allow him to stay close to Obama in the previously listed seven states and several of the lean states. The pick of Gov. Sarah Palin may be enough to prevent any red states from turning too purple so that he can keep his attention elsewhere. However, McCain will likely need to choose between Pennsylvania and Michigan at some point this fall. Currently, McCain is spending upward of $175,000 a day in Michigan and $350,000 a day in Pennsylvania. At this rate, he will have to spend too much to win both of these states, and this is worth watching as we move into October.

Obama, on the other hand, should have money to burn. And burn he will. He should have sufficient resources to blanket all the states he needs to win, and a few he doesn't, with TV and radio ads. For that matter, he will have money to hire blimps and skywriters, rent out rooftops and use any other cutting-edge media tools he wants. The one concern he must have is his inability to move poll numbers in states like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with ads this past summer. Take Florida, where Obama spent almost $9 million to John McCain's $0 from the end of June until the start of the Democratic National Convention. This large expenditure did not gain Obama any room in the polls. This may be a clear sign that a number of states' voters are locked and ads may not have much impact until the undecided and late-deciders break to one candidate or the other.

The state that could turn out to be one of the biggest recipients of ad dollars this fall is Virginia. The Commonwealth could be the hedge for Obama if he can't win Ohio. Some combination of a win in Virginia and in Colorado, New Mexico or Nevada, and it's Pennsylvania Avenue here we come!

For McCain it's, as Al Davis likes to say, "Just win, baby." His campaign, at present, has very little in the way of a Plan B scenario. They will not have the money to chase bad poll numbers into the red states, so they must be disciplined and thread the needle of electoral politics. Besides, if McCain is losing in red states, he's not going to be winning in the true swing states.

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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.
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